Universities and diploma mills
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of “teaching-only” universities. This discussion confuses two separate issues. The first is whether we should return to some variant of the binary system we had in the 1980s, with two kinds of universities. The research universities (the existing sandstones and some others) would carry on as before, while the teaching universities would drop research and PhD programs, and probably offer a somewhat different range of courses. In the Australian context, these would be low-status institutions, though the example of US “liberal arts” colleges shows that this need not be the case.
The other question is that of recently-arrived enterprises that don’t resemble universities in any sense except that they offer post-secondary education of some kind as part of their business. Examples are Melbourne University Private also trading as Hawthorn English Language Centre and the various city centre “campuses” established by universities like CQU as well as potential commercial entrants from overseas, such as the “University” of Phoenix. In essence, these are trade schools offering business (and maybe computer) training along with English teaching to overseas students.
Looking at the first issue first, it’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s not going to happen in the short run without a lot of coercion, and the benefits don’t seem to justify the costs. A more appropriate and likely approach is to look at departments rather than universities and allocate research resources on the basis of something like the UK Research Assessment Exercise. A university that was rated poorly across the board would become a teaching-only university by default. But there’s no reason why a generally low-rated university couldn’t (or shouldn’t) have one or two areas of research expertise.
The second idea is where the action is. It was motivated by the observation that Melbourne University Private managed a grand total of only 12 research publications last year. AFAIK, CQU doesn’t break out its central city operations, but I expect the numbers would be lower if anything. Since universities are supposed to do research, this is a problem for these institutions in getting access to various funding schemes designed for universities.
It seems clear to me highly unlikely that funding systems designed for universities will be a useful model for this kind of setup. If anything they are closer to TAFEs. This of course raises the need, which I’ve stressed before, for a comprehensive approach to post-secondary education, integrating funding and student support for unis, TAFEs and maybe others. In the meantime, though, funding policy for this kind of setup should be designed separately from that for universities. It follows, I think, that the various setups established using public money should either be fully reintegrated (this would entail offering and filling a substantial number of HECS places) or sold off and left to fend for themselves in the private market.
fn1. I know this kind of thing is par for the course nowadays, but shouldn’t an institution purporting to be both a university and an English language centre adopt a name that’s well-formed in English. A standard rule of the English language, routinely violated in recent Australian bureaucratic nomenclature, is that adjectives precede nouns. How about Melbourne University Private Academy? (Of course, if we are going to be descriptively accurate, Alan Gilbert Private Boondoggle would be closer to the mark.)